There’s still a happily ever after for couples who have a baby before marriage

No need to race to the altar.
No need to race to the altar.
Image: Reuters/Damir Sagolj
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In America, we often often idealize Scandinavians—their happiness, their universal health care, and their ability to eschew marriage without fraying the fabric of society. The number of children born to unmarried parents has been rising in most rich countries; in America half of new mothers under 30 are unmarried. Many of them are living with their partner, but half of these relationships will end within five years after their baby is born.

Yet there’s still hope for a happily ever after. New research finds that couples who marry after having a child are just as likely to stay together as couples who got married before having children.

The researchers looked at two sets of couples: those who lived together during 1985 to 1995 and a latter group, who were together between 1997 and 2010. They estimate that the odds of having a baby while living together increased from 17% to 35%. This did not bode well for couples in the earlier group who ended up marrying.

In the first group, between 19% to 23% of couples who married after having a baby split up; 60% more than couples who married pre-baby. In the later sample, only 14% of post-baby marrieds split, a similar fraction as those who were married before they had a child. Nearly one-third of couples who don’t marry after having a baby break-up—more than twice the rate for those who marry.

Before, 59% of unmarried couples got married within five years after baby; in the later sample only 48% did. That may be because before, having a baby meant more social pressure to marry. Now, it may be stronger couples eventually marry, baby or no baby, and stay together. Or, if your relationship is still strong enough to consider marriage after you have a baby, it may indicate a more lasting bond.

Changing social norms often redefine what marriage means. Sweden has one of the highest rates of unmarried births, but also relatively low rates of single parent households. That’s because it’s become more common for stable couples to form families without the formality of marriage. In America the opposite is true. The evidence suggests marriage, more than ever, appears to be an important indicator of long-term stability.